New Books Report: Roy Kesey, Elizabeth Hand, Arthur Nersesian, Abbas Maroufi

There were many books I wished to spend more time with and write about in 2007. Here are some that seem especially noteworthy, as the year draws to a close and I prepare for an onslaught of 2008 titles …

All Over by Roy Kesey

The first Roy Kesey short story I ever read was “Wait”, which is included in the new collection All Over, the virgin publication of Dzanc Books. “Wait” begins quietly in an airline terminal where a flight is delayed. Slowly, like a frog being boiled in heating water, things get slightly worse, then more worse, and then they go completely unhinged. Kesey’s expert handling of this amoral fable won him the admiration of Stephen King, who chose it for the 2007 Best American Short Stories (which is where I first read it, though you can find it in All Over as well).

Kesey has a great and odd sense of humor, but can he write a straight story, minus all the crazy world-goes-on-tilt stuff? In fact, the first story in All Over is “Invunche y voladora”, a sobering realistic drama involving a honeymooning couple desperately trying to run away from their private problems by exploring the Chilean forests. The common denominator that ties “Invunche y voladora” to “Wait” to Kesey’s other stories may be a smart sense of pyschology and an interest in edgy situations. Kesey is so edgy, in fact, that when I met him last month at one of Amanda Stern’s Happy Ending readings I asked him if he had taken his name from Ken Kesey, the boisterous explorer of the Pacific Northwest. He hadn’t, Roy told me, but I say there’s a family resemblance, and the spirit serves Roy Kesey well. All Over is one of the better books published in 2007.

Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand

This is a fetching murder mystery with an appealing veneer of New York City 70s-80s punk attitude. I know the world whereof Elizabeth Hand speaks, and she describes it well. What I like best about Hand’s book is the spiky and street-smart narrative voice, which still hints at innocence when the weary narrator (who tells us she can’t be a meth addict because she’s too lazy to work that hard) is compelled to leave Seinfeld-Town for the ghostly coast of Maine, where a reclusive Soho photographer is hiding a dark room full of secrets.

Elizabeth Hand’s book is a fun ride with a likable narrator, even though the stock mystery plotting cost me some momentum. Still, a captivating voice is the one thing a novel lives or dies by, and on that account, Generation Loss lives.

The Swing Voter of Staten Island by Arthur Nersesian

Arthur Nersesian, acclaimed author of the Bukowski-esque The Fuck-Up, here takes us into an absurdist parody of New York City, which turns out to be an actual government reproduction of New York City (the real one was evacuated after a nuclear disaster) in the middle of the Nevada desert. The narrator wakes up and has to figure out where he is and what’s going on, which is extra difficult because he has been brainwashed to murder somebody and has a voice transmitting in his head.

The book’s back cover includes a gorgeous map of this bizarro New York City, which has everything wrong: Flatbush Avenue intersects Sutphin Boulevard, there are sandstorms in Bensonhurst, Nazi swastikas decorate parts of Manhattan, and all five boroughs are torn between two warring political parties out of a bad Martin Scorsese movie (yes, a bad Martin Scorsese movie, don’t argue with me). I have to admit that I ultimately despaired of making much sense of who was doing what to who in this very hectic story, which includes more weird inside jokes (a folksinger named Fillip Ocks? people actually care what happens in Queens? WHAAT?) than I can keep track of. But the visuals, the Francis-Bacon-esque streetscapes, are enough on their own to make this worth checking out. Ultimately I got lost inside this strange city, but you might find your way. If you like Matthew Sharpe’s Jamestown or Brian Francis Slattery’s Spaceman Blues (or Will Smith’s I Am Legend) you may love The Swing Voter of Staten Island.

Symphony of the Dead by Abbas Maroufi

“A thin plume of smoke floated beneath the barrel arches and domed vaults of the nut-sellers’ souk and forced its way out through the front gate. At the other end of the souk, a number of porters burnt wood in a brazier. A blanket covered their hands and occasionally, whenever they dared bring them out, they cracked watermelon seeds. Behind them, in a place looking somewhat like a crypt, three men were roasting the seeds in cauldrons. A mixture of smoke and steam rose into the air.”

I’m drawn into Symphony of the Dead, a family saga by an Iranian exile living in Berlin, by the author’s warm way with his characters as he slowly sets up the confrontations that will drive this story. I’m only beginning it now, but I’m also definitely intrigued by the epigram that opens the book, a quotation from the story of Cain and Abel that looks like it comes from the Bible, but it comes from the Koran. You may want to check out this book too.

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